Understanding Traumatic Stress Responses in Children and Families
One in every four children will experience a traumatic event before the age of 16. Traumatic events vary from fatal incidents, abuse, threats, acts of violence, and more; and the degree to which it affects a child depends on many different factors. A traumatic experience often lingers in the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of children and adolescents long after the original incident has ended. And, while it can be difficult, it is important for the adults in a child’s life to do their best to help them navigate through and process trauma in a healthy way.
Children can experience a wide range of reactions to trauma and loss, which can subsequently affect the rest of the family and other caregivers such as teachers, childcare providers, or friends of the family. The reactions a child may have can also vary greatly based on their age, developmental stage, the specific event, and the individual child. However, there are some broader ways that we can help a child reacting to a traumatic experience continue to process and recover in a safe, healthy way.
How to Help
- Preschool and Young School-Age Children: Offer support by providing comfort, rest, and an opportunity for children to play or express themselves. Reassure the child that they are safe and that the traumatic event is over. Help the child verbalize their feelings and provide consistent care taking and a sense of security for the child.
- School-Age Children: Encourage children to express their emotions and worries with their family. Acknowledge the normality of their feelings. Correct any distortions of the traumatic event. Communicate with teachers when a child’s thoughts and feelings are getting in the way of their concentration and learning.
- Adolescents: Encourage discussion of the event, feelings around it, and how it may affect relationships with their family. Help come up with constructive alternatives that lessen the sense of helplessness they may experience. Address thoughts of revenge they may feel following an act of violence and help families understand any behaviors of “acting out” as an effort to express anger about a traumatic event.
For families, it’s an important piece of their emotional recovery to help to each other cope with possible feelings of fear, helplessness, anger, or even guilt about not being able to protect children from a traumatic experience.
When children go through a traumatic situation, our Riverside Trauma Center is frequently called in to help. We offer support services, including grief counseling and referrals to help people after critical incidents and respond on-site by helping individuals identify healthy coping strategies. Visit our website to learn more or to request information on training and materials from the Riverside Trauma Center.
~ Waheeda Saif, LMHC, Program Coordinator – Riverside Trauma Center